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Movie Review: Collateral Beauty

For a thoughtful and embracing new Christmastime movie, see Collateral Beauty with Will Smith. This is probably the best new Christmas-themed movie since 2005’s The Family Stone and for many reasons—some the same, mostly for different reasons, though. What’s the same is that both movies have a major twist. Both pictures have an excellent ensemble cast. Both films deal with Christmas as a marker in time which, like life, is hard to move and change and yet it can light up the darkest corners.

Smith (The Pursuit of Happyness, Concussion) is capable of making bold choices in movie roles and this is one of them. Playing a man whose child has died is bold enough for one of Hollywood’s top movie stars, especially after portraying a doctor who challenged the football cartel and its millions of followers in Concussion, an outstanding motion picture which deserves more attention and credit than it gets. Playing a man who expresses emotions, too, is a risk, especially at Christmastime and undoubtedly in a season when you’re competing with another Star Wars movie and audiences seem to want more of the same mediocre sludge or are eager to be satisfied with an expensive thriller experience. Today’s mass audiences don’t want movies that make them think. They want movies that come pre-approved by others; movies that feel safe and have an aggregated review score, which merely attempts to quantify what others think. I suppose it makes them feel connected.

Collateral Beauty makes one feel connected by provoking the individual to think. It does this by setting up Smith’s character, Howard, with an enticing scene in which he plays a successful businessman with a specific philosophy that’s original, proprietary and utterly functional if not widely practiced and then threading that philosophy throughout the rest of a movie in which the hero stumbles three years later. The ad agency chief is despondent after the death of his child. That his spiral culminates during Christmas in New York City makes sense to anyone who’s had to face life after death—death of a loved one, death of a marriage, death of a child—and allows the filmmakers to lather the dreamlike Collateral Beauty with the holiday lights and city bustle that can, on blue and lonely days, become soft and soothing rhythms of life.

Written by Allan Loeb (Things We Lost in the Fire, 21, Fox’s brief but interesting collaboration in 2008 with Lasse Hallstrom, New Amsterdam) and directed by David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada, Hope Springs), Collateral Beauty quickly nests Howard with a few sets of subsidiary characters. One set stems from a grief support group led by Naomie Harris (Moonlight). Another batch originates with three of Howard’s deeply concerned partners, friends and colleagues at the agency, played by Michael Pena (The Martian, Ant-Man), Kate Winslet (Steve Jobs, Finding Neverland) and Edward Norton (The Painted Veil, The Grand Budapest Hotel). They, in turn, hire three actors to portray the three abstractions—in an elaborate bit of theater—to whom depressed Howard has written a letter: Death (Helen Mirren, The Hundred-Foot Journey), Love (Keira Knightley, Anna Karenina) and Time (Jacob Latimore, Black Nativity).

As Howard bicycles and all but sleepwalks through his multi-million dollar company’s deteriorating market viability, with his friends and co-workers on the verge of being fired due in part to his self-negligence, he slowly settles his inner sadness, calls out Time, Love and Death (helped by Ann Dowd as an accomplice and private detective) and deepens his appreciation for friendship, family and work. Of course, it’s not that easy and there are at least a few twists, which, unlike a Shyamalan movie, are not shortcuts, cheats or tricks. Lessons in chasing love, facing death and living in time abound. The magic here is earned and, though it takes a while to let it in, this light yet somber fable is compatible with the rational audience and very rewarding for anyone with a whole sense of life.

What Collateral Beauty is not is overly sentimental. To the credit of New Line Cinema, cast, crew and filmmakers, including Warner Bros.’ new president Toby Emmerich (and, incidentally, President-elect Trump’s new secretary of the Treasury, Steven Mnuchin), who executive produced Collateral Beauty, and with uplifting and elegant performances from the cast, notably Will Smith, Helen Mirren, Jacob Latimore, Naomie Harris, Michael Pena, Edward Norton and Kate Winslet, what debuted in movie theaters this weekend is a movie to be proud of for everyone involved and much better than dark and bleak movies lacking spirit, soul or life. Life isn’t fair. Neither is what wins the box office. But I’m confident that enlightened audiences will discover Collateral Beauty in the future. Here’s wishing for such an audience—especially for the audience of one—a Christmas that comes neither too late nor too soon.

Movie Review: The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

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Though I’ve never read the Tarzan stories written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, upon which the new Warner Bros. movie is loosely based, I know from the character’s vast cultural history that they explore civilized and primitive man and nature through great, exotic adventures.

So does The Legend of Tarzan, if not always successfully and with a few cringe-worthy lines and a leap of faith into the third act. This is an underdeveloped epic set in 1890 and much of it is good. It’s not a great picture, but it has moments of wonder, historical basis and loads of exciting entertainment. Powered in the lead by the silent, icy stare of the title character, well played by Stockholm native Alexander Skarsgård (The Giver), whose Tarzan insists on going by his proper name John Clayton, the newest version takes the British aristocrat as a man of honor, integrity and the best of Western civilization.

His heroism is rooted in his incredible past as an extraordinary lord of the jungle.

Through a backstory, told in misty flashbacks courtesy of his brave wife Jane (Margot Robbie), the whole remarkable story of this man of extremes comes together, leading the audience into a new African adventure involving the Congo, Belgium’s King Leopold, imperialism, diamonds, native tribes, slavery, leopards, elephants, lions, hippos and, of course, the family of apes that raised the ape man. All of this is somehow relatively convincing and exciting for most of the movie, despite unfortunate and generic effects such as slow-motion fight scenes and incoherent action shots. The natives and the man of the jungle look too ripped, frankly, but with logical storytelling and good performances from the leads, and by Christoph Waltz (The Green Hornet) as a villain as rotten as Tim Roth in Rob Roy, wrapping his fist in a rosary, The Legend of Tarzan entices and thrills.

With Samuel L. Jackson as a black Union Army veteran from the Civil War (George Washington Williams, based upon the man who knew Frederick Douglass in real life and wrote The History of the Negro Race in America 1619–1880) accompanying Clayton on his return to Africa, and Djimon Hounsou (Blood Diamond, Baggage Claim), a railroad siege, a deep jungle showdown and a romantic kiss on a tree branch, this Tarzan builds tension as it layers the plot with interesting ideas. Among them are obtaining wealth through enslavement, life as an ongoing lesson and, as its heartbeat, serenity through harmony with nature and man. This last might have delivered an inspired meaning for the movie, which beautifully depicts an African tribe’s blissful reunion with the blue-eyed husband and wife in the village fed by strength, kindness and love.

The Legend of Tarzan, even when images are obviously manipulated, is stunning to behold thanks to cinematographer Henry Braham (Flyboys), costume, production and art design and director David Yates, who directed the last four Harry Potter pictures, does a fine job in the first two acts. For his part, Skarsgård as John Clayton/Tarzan brings to the role an arrogance, depth and solitude other Tarzan movies lack and his ease at being in Africa with wild animals and tribes is more pronounced having been properly introduced to the man he has become since returning to London.

“Tarzan learned to conquer,” the audience is told of his relationship with the dangerous and regal beauty and beasts of the Dark Continent, and, for a long, welcome stretch, one is lost and held by this unique tale of an individualistic aristocrat with scars and muscles and the mind to match who walks among natives with a sense of decency—which goes for his Jane, too—as a plot to trap him thickens. By the climax, with too much to resolve, Yates ties threads together too quickly and doesn’t achieve the secular humanist grandeur this Tarzan movie might have earned. Yet The Legend of Tarzan engages the moviegoer once again in the imaginative world of a boy raised by a wild animal capable of affection, the heroic lord he becomes, the woman just as bold and brave whom he finds, and his ferocious fight for peace and freedom, not for power-lust and conquest as an end in itself. In other words, Tarzan of the West and, happily, of the world.

Promoting Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

BVSPosterThe hype for Hollywood’s first major competition to Marvel Comics’ Avengers movies begins today with the release of a Comic-Con trailer for Warner Bros.’ forthcoming Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (watch the trailer here). The long trailer is exciting, overblown and sufficiently enticing in terms of generating interest based on plot, character and action.

The new teaser is also relatively conventional. Done in that Wagnernian-operatic, apocalyptic score reminiscent of music for The Omen (1977) that everyone with a big action movie seems to use, certain situational settings and scenes dissolve in and out, introducing main characters and reintroducing those based on 2013’s Man of Steel. This is DC Comics’ entry in the comic book-based movie wars and it looks to be big, bloated and foundational to a huge new franchise for the San Fernando Valley studio.

Featuring Amy Adams (Her) as Lois Lane and Henry Cavill as Clark Kent/Superman, with Diane Lane (Secretariat) as Kent’s mother, Batman v Superman sets the tone by evoking the previous movie, though the teaser is framed primarily by the new character, Bruce Wayne/Batman (controversially cast Ben Affleck), bearing no relation to previous Warner Bros. Batman movies. What else is evident in the trailer is abundant: The Joker, Lex Luthor and other evils are implied as the conflict between superheroes takes shape, this happens as Bruce Wayne is apparently harmed by Superman, who is revered as a god, and Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) comes into the picture. Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network) apparently portrays Lex Luthor (“the red capes are coming”) in the trailer’s least successful tease. Jeremy Irons (Casanova) plays Alfred the butler. Laurence Fishburne (Blackish) reprises his role as the newspaper publisher. Holly Hunter (Always) plays a politician. Scenes and subplots appear to include major military involvement, crumbling skyscrapers and possible sidetracks to comics characters for DC Comics’ the Justice League.

Batman v Superman is directed by Zack Snyder (The Watchmen, Sucker Punch, 300), whose record is mixed to bad in making movies and there are already several credited writers. Whether this movie, which is gaining enormous audience awareness based on the social media-driven release of this trailer at Comic-Con, is a flop or a hit depends upon the relevance and coherence of the story and whether Affleck (The Company Men) and other cast members, especially Eisenberg judging by the teaser, pulls off a clean, convincing performance. With a hint of an element of hero worship, at least there’s the hope that Batman v Superman could beat Marvel’s increasingly incoherent, convoluted Avengers series by putting old-fashioned American heroism for justice back on top, though Warner Bros., DC Comics and Snyder ought to consider turning the volume, hype and disclosure of circumstance down, not up, before the picture goes to theaters.

Movie Review: San Andreas

SanAndreasPosterThe uncomplicated San Andreas from Warner Bros.’ New Line Cinema is not really about the big one, the fault line, the seismology or the typical disaster movie themes of enlightenment through trauma, trial and error. It’s about rescuing one’s values at the end of the world.

Get and check plot particulars elsewhere—Cal Tech’s entrenched scholars are already Tweeting about its flaws—and take San Andreas as it is: exciting, adventurous and family-themed. See it if and only if you dare.

A Los Angeles, California, search and rescue helicopter pilot (Dwayne Johnson) and his estranged wife (Carla Gugino) make their way together from Los Angeles to San Francisco to save their only daughter. The characters are plain and the performances are good. The visual effects are also good. They’re not overblown.

Director Brad Peyton gets a few key points wrong but overall does right by his theme that when the world’s coming to an end, one ought to grab hold of one’s selfish values and adopt the can-do American spirit. This is the California, especially Southern California, ethos, and it is well depicted in San Andreas. Layering epic scenes of mass death and destruction without minimizing life is hard to do and, partly for this reason, I am not a fan of these types of movies. If they advertise how to rescue and respond rationally, that’s fine. San Andreas ruptures and repairs well to this end. Having been in a major earthquake (read my thoughts on that experience here), I think this movie is an extreme and realistic recreation.

The movie’s mistakes are serious, very serious, in the case of an architect character (Ioan Gruffadd) who inexplicably goes bad. Everyone responds to the movie’s initial quake, one of several record-breaking temblors, aftershocks and foreshocks, at the Hoover Dam as if it’s just another breaking news alert, which is not at all realistic. Situational coincidences pile up faster than the bodies and rubble. The callousness of mass death is not lost on this reviewer—skyscrapers topple in seconds while action centers on certain characters—but this is part of San Andreas‘ point; dramatizing that one must choose to think, especially and urgently when all around is coming to an end.

Its point is to think fast, really. The daughter the married-but-separated couple try to save (Alexandra Daddario) embodies this trait, having learned from her fireman dad (Johnson) and she picks up a couple of heroes along the way, one of which is a very sharp fellow (Hugo Johnstone-Burt). Paul Giamatti (12 Years a Slave) thinks clearly and fast, too, as a heroic Cal Tech seismologist who reads biographies of Albert Einstein. At its best, San Andreas is an exaggeration on themes in the perfectly well done Twister (1996). It celebrates those who challenge nature. At its worst, it smears the productive, in the form of the movie’s architect, a man who is tested and responds, if ineffectively, and is cavalierly turned into a monster and dispensed with in the movie’s harshest scene.

For the moralizing against the architect, it is worth noting that, during the emergency, the government worker (Johnson) ditches his taxpayer-funded job and his oath to serve public safety to put his own immediate interest first. This raises interesting questions that San Andreas never answers, such as what people should do as so-called first responders abandon their posts, leave the public in danger and tend to their own values, which is what the architect is castigated for doing.

The can-do spirit comes through, thanks to Johnson, Gugino and Daddario and supporting cast, so see San Andreas for the thrill and experience in consideration of what would be your ethics in an emergency.

Movie Review: Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max 4 posterAny doubt that dystopian movies are prologue to today’s increasingly bleak reality—the future that was depicted in the early nihilistic films—is erased with Mad Max: Fury Road, the fourth in a motor gang quasi-snuff film series which opens as news breaks of motor gangs gunning people down to death.

Series director George Miller’s highly praised fetish-action film is economical in depicting a straight death chase featuring near-silent leads Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises) and Charlize Theron (Snow White and the Huntsman) as slave pen refugees on the run. That previous sentence is the essential point of all I have to say about this action-packed movie. The rest of this is a review born of cultural observation and commentary. Some readers might say my reviews are all like that. This one is more so.

I saw the new Mad Max movie in Hollywood’s fabled Cinerama Dome, where I’ve seen the comparatively worst (Avatar) and best (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, How the West Was Won) pictures, which always enhances a moviegoing experience. Mad Max 4, as I call it, is not an exception. Every explosion and gunshot is exaggerated in the dome. Mad Max 4, which begins with a short narration by Hardy’s Max character, a mentally damaged character to the extent he’s a character, is a sensory assault based on the most primitive characterizations. The world is going and has gone primitive, in reality and on screen, so the faith-laced Mad Max series comes full circle in terms of life imitating art.

What once was like an odd blend of sexualized violence, Mad Max (1979), taking off as a cult film on cable TV at the peak of the punk rock era, when nihilism seemed a quaint, distant notion, became popular with subsequent sequels (The Road Warrior, Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome) and influential with an entire genre that, with each Terminator or other death premise picture, became insidiously more realistic. While the death premise genre’s dystopianism was irresistibly recognizable, fueling the realism and popularity, audience response to the plots—which grew more callous and desensitized in proportion to the dumbing down of the plots—assured that more such empty, bloated vessels would get made and released. Mad Max 4, a tidy piece of psychotic punk nostalgia, finally achieves critical and commercial success as much as it represents the rise of freakish death culture that loomed a few decades ago.

The death cult’s future is here, tracked by this final cut of Wagnerian rock opera with touches of Planet of the Apes and every other Mad Max movie—with nods to its many inexplicable symbols, marks and horrors—with Miller’s same vacant philosophy intact. As Hardy’s mentally singed Max meets Theron’s avenging heroine, and they bond over a quintet of supermodel types held as birthing vessels for a dictator, the ensuing chase as the tyrant seeks to recover his breeding slavemistresses is the type of cleverly conceived, nonstop, overwrought action of the other movies, mostly reminiscent of The Road Warrior though any of this could be cut from any Fast and Furious film, with spikes, flames and gussied up cars, trucks and bikes added.

The bad guys have faith in the dictator-deity, who keeps the masses under control by treating water as a scarcity, and they’re eager to sacrifice themselves like mujahadeen for the sake of going to an afterlife. The good guys have been reduced to physically or mentally deficient pieces of flesh fighting for survival, with no real values at stake, though a few cling to boxes of material possessions from bygone days. They, too, usually end up maimed, dying or dead. Mad Max: Fury Road is, in this sense, like an anti-movie movie; the opposite of a Cecil B. DeMille epic with grand ideals and larger than life sets, characters and action. Its ideas—faith, hope and a weary sense of charity—are as ancient as the barbarians are primitive. But the big sets, hyped up action and relative intelligibility of the plot have everyone, critic and audience alike, treating this nihilistic fare like it’s as good as King Kong (1933).

It isn’t. But when the cineplex choices in a dying civilization are navel-gazing movies such as Birdman or idiotic movies like Avengers 2, and the world is busting out with mass murder every other day, including today’s motorcycle massacre in Waco, Texas, Mad Max 4 seems suddenly relevant and pretty close to reality. Of course, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, which, judging by the mindlessness of the audience response at the Cinerama Dome, goes unabated until the lights finally go out. Mad Max 4 is a skillfully made two hours of pictures about nothing but shopworn slogans and hardcore primitivism for a public that seeks to escape its descent into mass murdering death cults by seeing movies about mass murdering death cults.

I realize that the fanboy is likely to breathlessly object: ‘But, but, but Mad Max refuses to submit to being branded and he’s, he’s, he’s like really like a hero.” But the hyperventilating critic, or fanboy, as usual, is wrong. Mad Max—the character, the franchise, the new movie—is as empty as he was when he was introduced by George Miller in 1979. The world has simply plunged during that period of time to the point that most people no longer know the difference. What was parodied as primitivism 36 years ago is dramatized as primitivism today and closer than ever to becoming reality.